Equal Rights Amendment campaign sets sights on General Assembly session

Equal Rights Amendment campaign sets sights on General Assembly session
From left, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, pose in front of the ERA bus at the Capitol Nov. 10. (Photo by Katherine Jordan)

Organizers pushing for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment are shifting from a statewide bus tour to building buzz and gathering more patrons for legislation coming in the next General Assembly session.

“We are now on the journey to January,” said Del. Jennifer Foy, D-Woodbridge. “Now we are trying to canvas and poll and contact legislators so they know how important this is and that there is a lot of renewed attention to it.”

Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere, the House of Burgesses, assembled in Jamestown in 1619, from which the Virginia General Assembly traces its lineage.

Foy sees it as an historic opportunity for Virginia to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which seeks to “guarantee legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex” and “to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment and other matters.”

In the coming year’s short 45-day session, supporters are calling on Virginia’s House and Senate leadership to commit to equality by ensuring a path for joint resolutions to the House and Senate floors. Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, is a patron on the Senate side with Democratic Sens. Rosalyn R. Dance and Scott Surovell.

Foy’s is lead patron on a joint resolution to ratify the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that passed Congress in 1972. The joint resolution maintains that the amendment remains viable and may be ratified notwithstanding the expiration of the 10-year ratification period set out in the resolving clause, as amended, in the proposal adopted by Congress.

What ratification might mean is a thorny debate, but proponents still see a path to the amendment becoming part of the Constitution.

It has been 95 years since the Equal Right Amendment was first introduced in Congress to guarantee women constitutional equality. Thirty-eight states are required for ratification and on May 30, Illinois became the 37th. Supporters think this will be the year for Virginia.

The “10 Days of ERA Bus Tour” earlier this month hit 16 Virginia colleges and was to scheduled to make stops across the state, including Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Lexington, Norfolk, Roanoke and Williamsburg.

On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, the purple campaign bus pulled up to the student center at the University of Richmond. Signatures filled the sides of the bus emblazoned with the words: “Equality Now: A just world for women and girls,” and on the other side: “Honk if you love equality!” and “100 years and one more chance to be on the right side of history.”

Organizer Kati Hornung encouraged the small crowd that had gathered, to sign the bus and pose for photos.

“It’s the right time and the right place. Virginia hasn’t always been on the right side of history. This is our chance,” Hornung told the crowd in a presentation inside the student center.

Audience members posed questions to the campaign’s legal team about legislators’ stances and details about how the process may differ this year from years’ past.

“I thought this was going to happen in the ’60s,” said Frances Broaddus Crutchfield, 76, who said she felt the sting of inequality as a young widow, when she could not inherit her husband’s property without a legal battle.

The campaign has a timely aspect to it on the heels of the “Me Too” movement.

For Hornung the fight is personal: “My experience was, I came up through school and everything felt equal. I got a great job in the workforce and was paid less than my male counterparts. I was underpaid and I was solicited. It’s important to make value statements to my girls that they can get to skip what I went through.”

Hornung described the campaign as aggressively nonpartisan, with Republican supporters and events at county and city boards planned to show support for ratification.

“Most people don’t know that gender equality is not yet in the U.S. Constitution,” she said.

In past sessions, ERA legislation has not made it out of the General Assembly, where Republican leaders have said they support equal rights for women but cited technical concerns that the Congressional deadline for ratification expired in 1982. The amendment’s supporters argue that Congress has the power to extend or eliminate the deadline and that it should not be a barrier to the measure’s consideration.

“If want to end gender discrimination, we need to do more,” says Foy. “I think at the end of the day the emphasis is the joint nature of the support for the resolution. Equality is for everyone and everyone is for equality. With my Republican sisters and brothers, it’s just about solidifying rights in the U.S. Constitution, nothing more nothing less.”

Foy says the Virginia Ratify ERA campaign asks the public to lean on Virginia lawmakers.

“We want them to know that 165 million women’s rights rest on the shoulders of our legislators in 2019,” Foy says.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.